John Desmond Kelaher
- 283Wallaby Number
‘Jockey’ Kelaher was a world-class wing three-quarter of the 1930s. Small in stature, as his nickname suggests, Kelaher was a dynamic performer who regularly brought a crowd to their feet. Extremely fast and a wonderful finisher, Kelaher and Queensland’s Doug McLean Jr. formed one of Australia’s great wing pairings.
Born in Barraba, Kelaher was educated at De La Salle College in Armidale before he came to Sydney as a boarder at St Joseph’s College, Hunter’s Hill. Famous SJC coach Brother Henry shifted Kelaher from fly half to the wing because he was in Henry’s view “a natural winger whose talents were being wasted anywhere else.” Kelaher played in the 1st XV GPS Premiership teams of 1930 and 1931, and made the Combined GPS 1st XV in 1931.
After he left school Kelaher joined the Drummoyne club and immediately played first grade. Within four months he ran out for New South Wales against Queensland. Later that season Kelaher won a spot for the 1933 tour South Africa under Alec Ross where he went on to play in all five Test matches. Springbok legend Danie Craven later wrote of the second Test at Durban in the ‘Springbok Rugby Annals’: ‘The ball was fielded by Steggall who, sensing an open spot in our field, streaked away. He was joined by Kelaher who took the ball from him and set off at a terrific pace. When cornered he kicked a cross kick to his forwards, all of whom were there. Cerutti gathered and ran over under the goal posts with all his forwards in attendance. This movement was one of the best ever to have occurred on a rugby field.’
From his international debut in Cape Town, Kelaher played in 12 successive Tests through to the end of the 1937 season. Along the way he started in the 1934 side that won Australia’s first ever Bledisloe Cup series and played for New South Wales when they stunned the ‘greatest ever’ Springboks 17-6 in the S.C.G slush in 1937.
In 1939 he won selection for the Second Wallabies tour to Great Britain. Unfortunately England declared war with Germany two days after the team arrived and the tour was abandoned without a single scheduled match played. Upon his return to Australia Kelaher enlisted in the RAAF however he was never mobilised overseas. After he was discharged Kelaher continued to play club rugby with Manly.
An indication of the respect Kelaher earned during his career was found in a letter he received many years later from Craven. It read: ‘My dear Jack, I have just heard of your illness and wish to assure you that all your friends you made here in 1933 and 1937 are thinking of you in our prayers. And we know that the same drive and determination which you displayed on the rugby field will help you now. How can we who played against you ever forget the grey hairs you caused us? Best of luck and health, Danie Craven.’
‘Jockey’ Kelaher played 13 Tests for Australia in a six-year international career.
Kelaher won his first Test cap on the left wing, and fellow debutant Doug McLean Jr. started on the right wing, in the 1st Test, 3-17 loss to South Africa at Newlands. The two wingers retained their positions for each of the remaining four Tests of that series.
Kelaher and McLean were paired on the wings in both home Tests against New Zealand.
The Wallabies did not play a Test match in 1935.
McLean and Kelaher started in both away losses to New Zealand before Kelaher was shifted to outside centre for the 31-6 victory over the Maori at Palmerston North.
He started on the left wing in the two home Test losses to South Africa.
Kelaher burst a blood vessel in his left knee in a club match against Wests and was ruled out of the first two home Tests against New Zealand but recovered to take his place on the left wing in the 3rd Test, 10-14 loss at the S.C.G.